“A woman writing thinks back through her mothers.” ~Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
As Virginia Woolf accurately intimated in A Room of One’s Own, for most of history, when a writer failed to sign their name and instead became simply “anonymous,” that writer was a woman. Woolf states, “I would venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems withouts signing them, was often a woman.” Women writers understood, right through the nineteenth century, that assuming a male pseudonym could increase their chances of publication. Hence, women writers like Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë became Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell on the page. And indeed, they were more successful in getting published under those masculine pen names.
The ability to write as a woman and to be published as a woman is still relatively recent. Since the male-dominated world of publication most commonly presumed that women had little valuable to say that could contribute to the world of words and ideas, when women wrote, they often did their writing “underground.” Virginia Woolf, pioneering, feminist literary icon that she was, and is, championed women writers specifically, and that is the main thrust of A Room of One’s Own, her short but incisive book that suggests, ““A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” Woolf understood that, in order to find time to write, most women of her time (harried, saddled with a vast array of domestic chores and duties) needed a degree of financial independence, as well as a private space wherein they could think their own thoughts and, eventually, translate them onto paper.
In addition to her fervent support of female writers in public and on the page, Woolf paid homage to her literary “mothers,” the literary women of the past who had fed and inspired her mind through their writing. Woolf scholar, Beth C. Schwartz writes, “...Virginia Woolf declares that ‘a woman writing thinks back through her mothers,’ and she seeks female muses for women writers to think back through: both the ‘real women who mothered her mind’ -her surrogate mothers and fe-male literary precursors-and the fictional women she creates as sources of inspiration.” Woolf acknowledged literary mothers such as the Brontës, Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Elizabeth Gaskell, as well as lesser known female authors (A Room of One’s Own). She also benefited from having her own, living female muses: contemporary women who nourished her imagination and catalyzed her to write. Alice Vincent of Penguin Books describes Woolf’s novel Orlando, which features a protagonist who changes gender and time periods, as a radical love song to the female muse.” Indeed, Woolf wrote Orlando as a kind of ode of love to her long-time friend and sometimes lover, the poet, novelist, journalist and aristocrat, Vita Sackville-West. While Woolf also acknowledged the influence of male authors, such as Shakespeare, she devotes far more literary energy towards acknowledging and celebrating her mothers and female muses.
Virginia Woolf’s writing on “thinking back through [our] mothers” and her affinity for choosing female muses gives me pause to consider both my own literary mothers and the female muses I have the privilege of knowing. Who are the literary women from whom I have derived sustenance? Which women writers have mentored my mind, challenged my thinking or influenced my writing style? Whose convictions, passions and perspectives resonate on a very deep level? Which women do I read to delight in their beautiful language, whose skills with language I can only hope to emulate? My list, which is by no means exhaustive, includes: Woolf herself, of course, as well as Louisa May Alcott, Madeleine L’Engle, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans Cross), the Bronte sisters, Mary Oliver, Annie Dillard, Sylvia Plath, Toni Morrison, Arundhati Roy, Jean Rhys, Joyce Meyer, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Paula McLain, Therese Ann Fowler, Emily Dickinson, Edith Wharton, Maya Angelou, Naomi Shihab Nye, Maria Popova and Katherine May. What a rich heritage of women writers, what deep pools I have had the honor and good fortune to drink from before I even set serious pen to paper, or hand to keyboard.
From the Gardens of Charleston Farmhouse, Home of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and Virginia Woolf. Sussex, England. Photo Credit: The Blue Flower.
And then there are my female friends who act as muses. I think of my college friend Deb, whose creativity and artistic style are extraordinary and inspire me. At the forefront of my mind is also my poet friend Sarah, whose gorgeous verse in her book, We Hold On To What We Can, makes my breath catch in my throat with every reading. I think of Helen, an English friend from graduate school, who shares so many of my literary passions that we discovered we had signed up for almost all of the same courses at the University of York, before ever meeting each other. There is also my cousin Andrea, a beautiful letter writer, who long has graced her letters to me with quotations that speak to my heart and that wind up in my quotations journal, on this blog, or in letters I write to other people. And then there is my friend and former colleague, Mary, another published poet, whose passion for supporting poetry caused her to create our school’s Poet in Residence program, which I now direct. I am buoyed throughout the year by other literature-loving colleagues like Ali, Christie and Nicole, who like to write and who help to keep my literary flame burning brightly. And I could go on.
While indebted to all my female muses, there are two women who exert an influence on my life in perhaps the truest, muse-like sense. Imogen and Natalie are two talented friends I met as a grad student at The University of York, U.K. Both Imogen and Natalie completed doctorates; both took the plunge and pursued the furtherance of the academic qualifications while I chose to begin teaching high school English. Imogen is an art historian, and Natalie is a multilingual writing and literary scholar and a published poet. Imogen also writes poetry, and both friends write masterful prose. We are all mothers. Prior to the pandemic, all three of us were writing less than we wanted to write: that is writing less for our own pleasure or generally not doing as much creative writing as we wanted. Balancing the demands of our professions and motherhood had caused our writing impulses to be sidelined. Imogen and Natalie of course had their fair share of academic writing to produce each year, but they longed to delve into creative writing with more intentionality and regularity. I too felt the pull to get back into writing. While Imogen was living in California, though English born and bred, and Natalie was living in Pennsylvania, we had spoken on the phone with each other individually but had never thought to meet together simultaneously by Face-timing. Once we became confident on Zoom for our jobs, we realized we could meet together this way, and during one of our early conversations, we decided to challenge each other to write and to meet monthly to share our writing and to provide support and constructive feedback. We settled on a playful name for ourselves, “The Wayward Muses,” and we have been meeting faithfully and joyfully ever since.
Over the nearly two years that we have been meeting as writers, we have enjoyed the thrill of seeing some of our pieces published and have been filled with gratitude, reflecting that, without the support our intimate group provides and the steady motivation it gives to keep writing, these published pieces might never have been written. More important than being published, we each have found great satisfaction in writing material that was resting latent within us to write but that we had not made the time to write previously. We feel a sense of “rightness” to be getting the words down, to be doing the work. Just as pleasurable, if not more so, is the honor of reading each other’s work and having the privilege to provide insightful feedback. So many of my pieces have been made far stronger thanks to the thoughtful, constructive observations and promptings of these two beloved women. We intentionally keep our feedback mostly positive, recognizing that it is difficult to share our writing with others, risking embarrassment or discouragement. Writers can be very sensitive people. But, we do ask helpful questions that lead to improvements, and we do ask each other for specific critiques when we’re unsure of certain elements of a piece and are willing to seek honest input. We are aware that what we are offering each other each month is something very precious, causing our lives to feel both more balanced and expansive, making it easier to breathe in the midst of whatever chaos the world produces year to year. After meeting with these muses, I always feel like expressing one of Natalie’s signature remarks, “What fortune!”
Take a moment to “think back through [your] mothers.” What women have influenced you most? What women writers, specifically, have influenced you in how you think, in what you choose to read, in how you write or create? Which women in your real life have been muses to you: sources of inspiration, of connection to your truest and most creative self? Have you thanked them recently? Do you have the ability to do that this week? Are you functioning as a muse in another woman’s life? How might you do more of this? How might you champion other women to use their talents, to use their voice, and to create things of beauty and importance?